August is the month when I venture northward into Algoma District, as I do every summer. I lived the first half of my life there, so we have family to visit, and the nostalgia is a powerful draw. I spend most of my vacation on the beach just outside of a sleepy town that was finally awarded the convenience of early-morning Tim Hortons coffee in 2021. However, the Tim's is not a 24-hour operation; nothing up there is.
I do a lot of swimming, reading and snacking at our rented beach cabin. It was built in 1946, and very little of it has changed over the decades. It still has doors made of planks, shellacked pine walls, and uninsulated rafters. The woodstove is long gone, but the orphaned brick chimney remains. I thought it could use a little decoration, so I attached a 1960 Ontario plate to a wall almost ten years ago. It’s still there.
Plate-hunting is not particularly rewarding in this region of Ontario. Most of the population is concentrated within a few miles of the Trans-Canada highway, and even so, that sleepy ribbon of farms and villages is sparsely populated. There isn't much for a collector to find there; It's no wonder that my collection didn't really get off the ground until after I moved south. But I check a couple of locales when I'm able. Often I come away with nothing, but I encountered a little surprise this year: I literally lived the dream.
I wrote previously in this column about a recurring dream that I have: I'm wandering through a meadow where there might be the remains of an old shanty, or a derelict tractor with a missing engine. Invariably I look down and see a license plate. And then another. And then another. They form a kind of breadcrumb trail that might lead me to a bigger reward (which never comes, because the dream never lasts).
I was on my way to check out a hiking trail around an old mine. I stumbled upon the recycling yard for the local town, which was just down the road. It was basically a pile of scrap metal next to a little shack, both close up to the road. The depot was only open one day per week—which wasn't today— and nobody was there. I parked the car on the side of the road and hopped the gate with no effort. I walked over to the scrap metal pile, which consisted of an old satellite dish, broken laundry appliances, and some bent aluminum ladders. I didn't expect to find anything else. But then, down by my feet, I spotted a 1973 Ontario plate, just sitting on some random scraps:
FTN-316 was issued in nearby Sault Ste. Marie, where my family lived. In 1973, my dad was issued FTN-897. There have been lots of FSs and FTs to find from there; I had never been able to find an FTN plate before. It was in fairly clean condition. I bent over to pick it up. And then, I saw another at my feet, with its back side facing me:
VKM was issued in Sault Ste. Marie along with the VKN series in 1983, around the time that staggered registration started. This plate must've been the front one, as it didn't have a sticker. But then, looking a little further along into the scraps, I found its mate, face-up, tangled with an old cooking grill.
All of these plates were just lying amongst the scrap metal, within a few feet of each other. I carefully looked along the ground, and between the scraps. Eventually I uncovered three others: An EXP single, and a matched pair from the MHB series. EXP was issued in Westport, which is a many-hour drive away. But MHB is a mystery series to me: It series could've come from any of the little towns that dot the highway, if not beyond.
I ignored the “no scavenging” sign and took the six plates with me. They weren't exactly the find of the century, but never before had I just stumbled upon loose plates strewn on the ground. I didn't even need a screwdriver! I hadn't even gone out specifically to look for plates... but I will always follow my senses.
Having cleaned the scrap pile out, I resumed my journey toward the hiking trail that surrounded the old mines. I hopped out of the car and followed the trail, admiring the forests and peering at the barricaded mineshafts along the way. There were a couple of forks in the path, so I took the one that led to a nearby mining road— now used enthusiastically by ATV riders.
I found the remains of a wrecked 1951 Ford Fordor sedan, anchored in place due to partial burial by sand, gravel, and larger chunks of blasted rock. There were almost no ornaments left, aside from the bezel of one tail light, which gave away the make and model year. There was no engine, no upholstery, and of course, no plates. Even the serial number plaque had long since been pulled off. I poked around the car and peeked into the trunk—it’s safe, as this isn’t rattlesnake country—but there was nothing of interest. The doors wouldn’t open further because they were stuck in place from the gravel. I hadn’t expected to find a 70-plus-year-old car in the forest, so I took pictures and finished my hike.
Click any photo to enlarge.
Later that week, I took another drive northward into “farm country” as it exists here. The land isn’t great for farming, except in certain pockets near the various tributaries that empty into Lake Huron. The fields are interrupted by many hills of Precambrian rock, so the landscape alternates between crops and forests, depending on where you look. I had a destination in mind, but it wasn’t to find old plates or cars. It was to pay a visit.
Earlier this year, I commemorated my late plate mentor, Ernie Wilson. While assembling material for the article, I located the small cemetery where he rests. I found it easily enough, on the north side of a hill, surrounded by farmland. I didn’t know where to find his grave within the cemetery, but it wasn’t long before I came upon it; I just had to keep an eye out for the likeness of a licence plate that features prominently on his monument. There was a bit of lichen growing on the inscription, so I cleaned some of it off and spent a bit of quiet time with ALPCA member 361, who welcomed me so warmly to the club nearly 30 years ago.
Nothing much else happened during the week at the beach cabin. I did buy a couple of clean Glen Campbell records, because Glen Campbell is awesome. But you're not here to read about my vinyl collection. So I'll just close with a picture of my loot and beach reading.